Thursday, July 22, 2021

Water Heater War

In the epic battle between a 41-year-old female with zero plumbing experience and a Bradford White 50 gallon electric water heater, I have been triumphant. 

This was a war I never intended to fight, a battle brewing for more than four years. 

Beneath the glare of a single bare lightbulb,
the beast waits in its lair.

In the first days after we moved into this beautiful house, I noticed our hot water was measly. Wimpy. Unimpressive. It was very warm at best, never up to the challenge of being truly hot. On the advice of our builder, I cranked up the water heater's two heating elements over and over until they were set hot enough to boil us, but the water temperature at our faucets and showerheads was still unexceptional. I was vexed, but thought it was a minor inconvenience we'd just learn to live with. Yet the thorn in my side slowly festered.

About two weeks ago, the hot water inexplicably became even less hot. Now I was taking daily showers with no cold water added whatsoever. While this was fine in the halcyon days of summer, once winter wraps us in her icy arms it is going to be problematic.

Our plumber examined it like the builder had, finding nothing wrong. He drained the tank of water, replaced the bottom heating element, and refilled it on the outside chance that this would breathe new life into the antagonistic appliance. 

"Did they tell you what this thing is on top?" the plumber asked before departing, pointing to a silver reticulated tube that appeared to link together the hot and cold water pipes above the tank. "I don't know what that is. Maybe that's your problem." 

The tank burbled wickedly.

Wednesday, June 30, 2021

Second-Rate Steps

On those few blessed mornings a week that my house is as still as an empty auditorium, I sit at the computer and ask the words to dance. Some days they tango. Most times they stand defiantly on skinny legs and glare at me. 

On days like today, I have the audacity to poke them until they move.

Life is almost pre-pandemic normal-busy-overwhelming, and already I'm worn out. Kids, job, household, wife - it's a frenzied four-step hustle. I'm not funny. I'm not insightful. My heels blister. And I'm doing a terrible job of writing and submitting regularly.

If I don't scribble out essays for publishing, am I still a writer? Are my words still real if nobody reads them? 

What does being a writer actually mean?

Monday, May 24, 2021

Dinosaur Roars and Classmate Conflicts

"Maybe he's sad," he told me. "Or jealous of my awesome dinosaur roar."

My 8-year-old and I were laying on his bed after lights-out a few weeks ago, discussing his day. Lately he's been dealing with some mild teasing at school. A couple of classmates have been telling him he's annoying, locking him out of recess games, and mocking his first name. It's nothing that we feel rises to the level of bullying, but rather the low-level needling that virtually all schoolchildren endure at some point. 

"That's what my friend said. That if someone teases you, it's because they're jealous," he added, and then demonstrated a velociraptor sound that fell somewhere between gargling alligator and demon-possessed lion. If he wants to think other children only wish they could sound that vicious, who am I to argue? 

But how do you explain to your kids that sometimes people are just mean?

The unfortunate truth is, it's a tough world out there. Despite all the advances that have made life better and easier, people are still human - and humans can be cruel. There will always be some who don't like you no matter who or what you are. 

We're grateful that our children's school puts a heavy focus on kindness, friendship, and inclusion. It sets the tone, but it won't entirely eliminate encounters with people indulging their baser instincts.

Ready, set, be strong.

My oldest was born sensitive and empathetic, which are feelings we've tried to foster. They are priceless attributes that the world needs more of. But life is going to be even harder for him because of these traits - the softest, sweetest fruits tend to bruise most easily. 

Then last week my boy came home with a souvenir from one of those character-building experiences.

Friday, April 30, 2021

I'm Not Ready

Monday band rehearsals. Thursday boxing and soccer practice. Friday band concerts. Saturday soccer games. First communion, lunch out of town, preschool graduation, a community safety class. 

In the next two months, my family will return to a pre-pandemic schedule. We'll go back to youth extracurriculars and events, adult hobbies, and a few safe social engagements. My husband's work schedule will revert to full-time regular madness: two morning shifts followed by two evening shifts capped off with one middle-of-the-day shift. 

I am not ready.

Normal means busy.

Over the last 14 months the world came to a screeching halt, then only crawled along as absolutely necessary. Amid this slower pace and decreased expectations, I felt like I could breathe. I had precious downtime, something I haven't enjoyed much of since birthing children. Our calendars were blissfully light, filled in only with vital in-person functions. In terms of busyness, life was so much easier. 

The holidays were equal parts empty and relaxed without school functions, family gatherings, and friendly parties. Yet I enjoyed them more. With more hours to myself, I finally found time to write, read books from the library, and complete long-planned home improvement projects. To do things I had been back-burnering for ages because everyone else's events took priority and left me too tired for much else. As an introvert and a creator, I welcomed the refreshing solitude and freedom.

We didn't get to celebrate my 40th birthday with a trip, but I read more than 15 books set in America and Europe. There was no family vacation last summer, no sunsets painting beaches pink. But I painted four rooms in our home (including an overzealous foray into stenciling) and completed three detailed woodworking projects. I've sorely missed seeing my friends, but I've seen 10 essays published. 

Monday, March 22, 2021

I Had a Breast Cancer Scare, and I Didn't React Like I Thought I Would

The troubles that you waste nights worrying about are rarely the troubles that actually strike.

This sticks in my memory from a Chicago Tribune column by Mary Schmich, offering advice to the class of 1997 -- one year before my own high school graduation. It became a spoken-word hit when Australian movie producer Baz Luhrmann inexplicably hired an actor to read it against some jaunty ambient music, and the single was released to radio in 1999. A bizarre pop-culture moment that landed in my quote book, it often pops into my head. 

Specifically the line, "The real troubles in your life are apt to be things that never crossed your worried mind, the kind that blindside you at 4 p.m. on some idle Tuesday."

It was probably closer to 10 a.m. for me, but the Tuesday part was correct.

On a recent Tuesday this month, I was standing in a mammography room with my left breast painfully trapped between two plastic plates while an x-ray machine moved in an arc in front of my face. This was my second mammogram ever, a follow-up to a January scan that was inconclusive. Dense tissue prevented the radiographer from reading it, so another was ordered.

This time, I had both 2D and 3D images taken -- the latter combines many image slices to create a more detailed picture, instead of a compressed image. Because my breast tissue falls in the "extremely dense" category, the 3D images better identify any unusual growths that could be cancer.

And it found one.

Sample image. My breasts were not
harmed in the making of this photo.

Friday, February 26, 2021

I am the Idiot Who Called the Fire Department on Herself

Just before 2 p.m., I was gathering my things for a school pick-up run. Bag? Check. Sunglasses? Check. Mask? Check. 

Suddenly, multiple smoke alarms in my house started blaring simultaneously. I froze in fear. There was no explanation, there was only the ear-splitting screech of dire warnings in stereo. DANGER!

Like a thousand pigs squealing

Weird thoughts go through your head during a perceived crisis. My first panicked thought was our security alarm was going off, but 1.) I hadn't turned it on yet and 2.) I was the only one in the house, definitely not intruding. My second thought was I wasn't currently cooking, so it wasn't a burned dish smoking in the oven or a pot holder I accidentally set on fire like that one time in college. (PSA: Do not leave unattended pot holders on the stove, lest you turn on the wrong burner and they go up in flames.)  I frantically rushed around two floors and a basement while sniffing the air like a bloodhound, but I couldn't see or smell smoke. 

After maybe 30 or 60 seconds, the alarms stopped as suddenly as they had started. My brain was vibrating and my legs were bracing for evacuation, but I couldn't find the threat. If I waited any longer I was going to be late to pick up the kids and would have to muscle my way into the car lane. So I called my husband at work to let him know we may have a fire-alarm-tripping poltergeist, and I set off for school while practicing deep breaths.

We walked in the door of a completely intact and definitely-not-burning house more than an hour later. I assumed the earlier emergency warning was merely a freak occurrence. But within 20 minutes, multiple alarms went off again. SCREECHSCREECHSCREECH!! 

The kids ran in frenzied circles, hands covering sensitive ears. I tried yelling over the alarm that everything is okay, please calm down, but clearly it wasn't okay and I was less than calm. I ran from one ceiling-mounted smoke alarm to another, glaring up in confusion, trying to figure out what was going on. 

Just as I was ushering the kids out the back door and into the yard to prevent their ears from bleeding, there was mysterious silence again. The kind of silence that leaves your ears ringing and your nerves jangled. The kids came back in, dragging their feet warily. I walked around the exterior of the house doing recon, just in case some mulch had spontaneously combusted, but found nothing. I was beginning to feel very disturbed.

Definitely not on fire

Wednesday, January 27, 2021

The Lost Year

My husband's birthday came in January, just like every year. Over ice cream cake at the kitchen table (since we couldn't safely dine in a restaurant), we invited our kids to guess how old he was turning.

"19!" Said the five year old. Her grasp of time is tenuous at best.

"No, he's 46," countered the seven year old. My husband conceded.

"You're 46?" I said, puzzled. "I thought this was 45. Weren't you 44 last year?"

"Year before last," he said.

I had to sit with that for a while. 

If we mark time by changes -- the new moon each month, the shift in the slant of light that comes with each season -- then it's no surprise I'm struggling. For most of last year, each day of sameness slid into the next day until they piled up at the end of the calendar like cars in a chain-reaction crash. It feels nearly impossible to pick out anything recognizable from that mess. 

It's been a year since the first U.S. case of coronavirus, and more than 10 months since our schools moved online, businesses closed partially or shut down completely, and socializing all but stopped for us. Throughout the pandemic we've been careful (maybe more careful than most) to protect our extended family and community, but the monotony of cautiousness is draining and demoralizing. 

Last year was interminably long, yet I can't remember much. 2020 feels like The Lost Year. 

First we lost our social connections and work lives as the pandemic spread and states imposed restrictions. We lost jobs and income and normalcy. We lost celebrations that marked the milestones of birthdays and anniversaries. We sacrificed sunny summer vacations and fun trips that would normally fill the cold, dreary winter, and the memories of new places and new experiences. All those things that set one day apart from the next, gone. 

Try again next year.

Thursday, December 31, 2020

The Words I Keep In My Nightstand Drawer

Some people collect comic books, or vinyl records, or refrigerator magnets. I collect words. 

In the fall of 1998, my first semester in college, my best friend urged me to start a quote book. We shared an infatuation with the first two Counting Crows albums, dripping tortured lyrics that, in the throes of early adult angst, spoke to our souls. Adam Duritz sings words you can't help but pay homage to by writing them down for yourself. Suddenly I saw the world was full of words I needed to keep.

So I dug out an old hardcover journal I had been gifted in high school. With the inspirational Footprints poem on the cover, it wasn't really my style, but it had 168 lined pages ready to absorb meaningful, beautiful words, and I obliged. I wanted a list of expressive and evocative quotations that said I wasn't alone, and snapshots of the memories I might someday forget.

The very first quote I wrote down was, "Your past is where you came from, not who you are." It told me, in stark black honesty, that I could be a person who mattered despite my tumultuous childhood -- I could start over, a future as wide open as these pages, and craft my story how I wanted it. That quote proved to be the launching point of one of the most meaningful projects I've ever undertaken.

"Our thoughts are bigger on the inside."

Monday, December 7, 2020

Back Away from the Elf

I didn't think it would happen to us. Not to *my* friends. We were smart. We were practical. We knew the risks. We had read articles from doctors advising against it, heard about the struggles of other parents, and agreed that we would never turn into Those People. 

But when December came, one by one they fell victim to the contagion. They bought Elves on the Shelf.

Enemy of the people

I didn't understand what was happening. These are otherwise level-headed, rational parents who for some reason looked at their lives -- working from home, schooling from home, navigating a pandemic, plus taking on the load of Christmastime -- and thought, "You know what would be great? If we added even more daily responsibilities in the name of enchantment!"

I wanted to talk them off the ledge, shake them into sensibility, take their temperatures and suggest bedrest. But it was too late -- the elves had already been named. It had begun.

Oh, my dear friends, what have you done?

Even my husband, one of the smartest men I know, caught the sickness and tried to talk me into getting an Elf on the Shelf for our home. Our son's classroom has one named Snowelle Snow, and our second-grader is obsessed with its witchcraft. She had even convinced Santa to add a second snow day for the children to enjoy being off school and tormenting their parents who just wanted to sit down after shoveling the driveway for the third time! 

Desperately seeking an explanation, I asked him why? Why would you bring an elf into our home? Why would you sentence us to years of brainstorming and executing elf-sized pranks in varying places around the house when there is already SO. MUCH. to do during the holidays? 

This is not helping.

Monday, November 16, 2020

A Note to the Boy Who Won't Slow Down

To my dear, sweet little boy --

Some days you are a stellar nebula, roiling and swirling, birthing gravity, constantly creating itself. I am interstellar space that once contained the ingredients for making your stars. Not empty but feeling that way, made of dust and protons, I watch. 

Some days you are a swollen stream bursting at your banks, rushing forward to no clear destination. Churning and frothing with barely contained hydroelectricity, you move anything in your path that you can carry. I am a rock in your waters, fixed and surrounded, trying to steal a breath.

Some days you are the hot wind barreling through the flat plains, battering anything that dares to stand in your way. I am a windmill trying to withstand your gusts without losing my blades. I whirl with frustration, struggling to draw enough water to quench my thirst during these long days. 

Some day your energy will scale the sheer faces of awesome cliffs, it will run city marathons, it will fight tirelessly to help others. Your energy will heal in an emergency room or teach enthusiastic kindergartners. Some day your energy will build grand houses, beat back voracious fires, fill plate after plate in a restaurant kitchen on Mother's Day.

We just have to make it until then.